Blu-ray Review: Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

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Appreciating art means seeing the value in all things, whether or not we find the given item particularly beautiful.

Similarly, even if we have the facts and details down to a science proven by regurgitating memorized movements, dates, and information straight out of a textbook like the 1953 graduating class of Wellesley women in Mona Lisa Smile, such a practice can never be mistaken for true understanding of subject matter.

To appreciate something is to get the facts-- yes-- but then to consider it thoughtfully and individually so that learning becomes not only invisible but also easily interchangeable with experiencing the topic in question.

Needless to say, Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts) is in for quite an experiential education when the California feminist accepts a professorial post in Wellesley's art department.

In her very first lecture, she's rudely into her place by her snobby students who've read the entire textbook and take great pride into figuratively kicking her ego all the way back to the westernmost edge of the United States.

Determined to dish it right back by bringing things in to challenge the girls in a format that isn't listed on the syllabus, she soon discovers that the young women she's teaching only see the value of learning for the sake of getting one more step out of the way in the climb towards matrimony.

Thus, the only appreciation they have is in their own personal pursuit of reaching the American dream in the form of a husband with a steady job and a home, which they consider to be far more worthwhile than anything she has to say about Jackson Pollack.

Yet for all of her wisdom and forward-thinking ideas about art and the role of women in the world during the era of the double standards of educated ladies who wind up hosting dinner or cocktail parties for their husband's work colleagues, it turns out that Katherine hasn't exactly bothered to see the value in all things either.

Refusing to give into the girls when her pet student (Julia Stiles) says that she's dreamed of law school but is content to just be a wife or let a newly married Kirsten Dunst treat class like a gossiping tea party when she returns from her honeymoon, Katherine is a seemingly complicated character in the film but one who likewise seems more shallow when you step back and consider Mike Newell's film for yourself.

Although on the surface, the movie-- allegedly inspired by Hilary Rodham Clinton's time at Wellesley College in the 1960s-- is presented to viewers as a version of A League of Their Own meets Mr. Holland's Opus, we realize that there's a double standard involved and a faux feminism that doesn't go down quite as well as it did in the exciting but ultimately sad League as Roberts' Watson fails to practice what she teaches.

By promising the girls that they can do anything and constantly reminding them not to give up their dreams or tie the knot so early (if at all), she's giving them a strict textbook like lecture that's as obvious and idiot-proof as the paint-by-numbers Van Gogh projects she gives to each girl as a metaphor to conform or challenge. And in doing so, her motives to conform to her idea of what's right and wrong become as obvious as red paint on a white canvas.

Of course, as a feminist I do agree with Watson in her advice and it's easy for male and female viewers to do so when viewing this period film from today's standpoint since the women were so held back. However, by forcing the ideas down our throats like campaign advertisements, it makes Katherine Watson seem less inspiring than it does stereotypically feminist.

To this end, where the otherwise incredibly well-acted film fails is in the cookie cutter, predictable “hotel room painting” style reassurance of the character types and the safe brushstrokes of the plot.

And aside from Roberts' unmistakable transparent smile that hides none of the Mona Lisa mystery, it's disconcerting for the phony "free your mind" movie that we're told what to think by a character we're not totally sure we like or understand.

However, this major flaw aside, it's fairly easy to value the talented cast especially Ginnifer Goodwin and Maggie Gyllenhaal and appreciate it as a female-centric "up with women" movie that isn't ultimately about a desperately clingy dater or Runaway Bride or groom.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.